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Just A Friend

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There’s something rather special about this time of year with the transition from spring to summer when everything is still so fresh and green. The long, light evenings make me feel like I’ve been given an extra couple of hours in my day.

My flat has a balcony. It’s small—just enough space for a bistro table, two chairs and a few pots of herbs—but I love it. I come home from work and sit out there, sometimes with a cup of coffee, sometimes with something a bit stronger. Of course this is weather dependent — I am in Scotland, after all.

But sometimes, like tonight, sitting on my balcony isn’t enough. I want to be outside in all that fresh air and sunshine. Plus, one of my neighbours has acquired a new hobby, apparently. It’s either learning the violin or strangling cats. Although it sounds more like the latter, I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt and say it’s the former. I have finally managed to identify the piece she’s having a crack at. It’s from ‘Frozen’ — ‘Let It Go’ and I really wish she would.

Besides, if I wander into the park, there’s a certain ice cream kiosk that might still be open. My mouth waters at the thought of their cherry bakewell ice cream. So, I grab a cardigan, keys and a bit of cash, and head out.

As I stroll through the park, I’m thankful that I brought my cardigan. The sun is still warm, but there’s a distinct chill in the shade. Not enough of a chill to put me off an ice cream, though.

The kiosk is just on the verge of closing for the day, but he spies me doing that stupid little pretend run that’s actually no faster than walking and waits. I smile gratefully as I hand over the money in exchange for a double cone. Turning away, I can hear the shutters closing.

There’s a bench nearby, overlooking the pond and still in the sun… unoccupied. I sit down ready to enjoy my ice cream in peace. After the cacophony of a violin bow being scraped painfully across strings, this is sheer bliss — only the sound of a few argumentative ducks and the occasional playful dog. No-one to disturb me, no-one to—

At first, all I can hear are two voices, coming from the path behind me. Nothing above a murmur — one low pitched, the other higher. I can’t make out what they’re saying. Not that I would want to. The higher voice, a female, is definitely getting louder now. She’s not happy by the sound of it. The other, clearly male, keeps to a calm murmur.

“Are ye telling me I’m imagining things, then?”

I can’t hear the response, but it’s obviously not to her liking.

“I ken she works fer ye. But she has her eye on ye. I’m no’ stupid. D’ye think I’m a mug?”

The voice sounds a bit familiar but I can’t place it anywhere. Perhaps we go to the same coffee shops or bars or—

“That’s it, James Fraser. I’m going, I mean it... Ye ken where tae find me… this is me, going… bye… I said bye. Fine, dinna answer me, then.”

The annoyance in her voice registers in my brain. I know why she sounds so familiar— it’s little Miss James-Fraser-isn’t-here-don’t-call-again-ever. Which means that, at any moment, one or other of them might be rounding this corner and think that I was eavesdropping.

Quickly I get to my feet ready to walk away —slap bang straight into Samsonite-owning Jamie Fraser. I take a step back. The first thing I notice is he’s not wearing a white dress shirt this time. He’s far more casually dressed in a plain white t-shirt… a plain white t-shirt now adorned with a large splodge of pink ice cream right in the middle of his chest.

“Oh, gosh, I’m — I’m so sorry,” I stammer apologetically as I fumble in my pockets for a paper serviette or tissue.

He looks up. The vexed expression on his face gives way to one of amusement.

“Claire Beauchamp,” he announces. “I didna recognise ye without yer suitcase.”

“I am sorry,” I continue to apologise as I pass him a somewhat crumpled but clean tissue.

He makes no attempt to leave, but settles himself on the bench and starts to dab ineffectually at the pink stain.

“Was it good?” He nods at the battered cone I am still holding.

“Oh yes, the best. I’d buy you one as compensation but they’re closed now.”

“It’s fine. If I feel the need I can always suck on ma shirt.” He looks down at the stain, glaringly obvious against the pristine white of his t-shirt. “Sae, how are ye doing?”

I perch on the bench next to him. Apparently we’re having a conversation.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I answer politely. “And how are you?”

“Me, I’m no’ sae bad,” He looks annoyed, then shakes his head and gives a little half smile. “Look, I’m sorry if any of that… er…weel, if ye heard any of that.”

Do I lie? Pretend that I heard nothing? I’m not a very good liar. Geillis always says that I have a glass face, you can see every emotion clearly etched on it and I think she’s right. So I choose to answer noncommittally.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s jes’...” he pauses for a moment, considering his choice of words. “Jes’ … tricky.”

He seems lost in thought. Maybe I need to remind him that his wife-partner-girlfriend-housekeeper has just stormed off and will clearly be awaiting some sort of reaction from him.

“Shouldn’t you be… ?” I gesture towards the path in the direction she must have taken.

“Nah, I’m no’ going after her… no’ this time.” He adds the last bit under his breath.

“Oh, ok.”

“That's what she wants, ye ken. The attention, me chasing after her, making promises…” his voice tails off as he realises what he’s doing.

He looks at me and shrugs his shoulders. “I’m sorry. I shouldna be blathering like this tae ye. I dinna ken why.”

I do. Sometimes it’s easier to vent, to get things off your chest, to a stranger rather than family or friends. You can pretty much say what you like, confident that it’s not going to come back and bite you, or spread like chinese whispers around your peer group.

“No need to apologise. It can be easier explaining things to strangers, sometimes.”

He smiles. “Ah, but, I dinna think we’re strangers. After all, I’m well acquainted with yer holiday… er...shall we say, accessories.”

If his intention was to make me blush, he’s succeeded. I feel myself redden. “It was a hen party. I had to get into the spirit.”

“So ye say.” He raises an eyebrow as if to question my explanation. “Och, dinna mind me, I’m jes’ teasing.”

I screw my face up in mock disgust and he chuckles.

“My mam told me never tae pull faces else ye’ll be stuck like that if the wind changes.”

I assume a serious expression.

“That’s much better, Miss Beauchamp,” his face becomes serious too. “But, aye, I get what ye’re saying— about talking tae people ye dinna ken. Ye’ve no horse in this race, as it were. Everyone else that I ken seems tae have an opinion.”

I’m suddenly conscious that the remains of my cone are still in my hand, now totally melted. Noticing my awkward fidgeting, he returns the crumpled tissue to me. I wipe my hands and deposit all the debris in the bin by the bench. He settles back, obviously keen to continue our conversation.

“Sae, are ye up fer giving me yer opinion then about ma situation?”

I’ve never thought of myself as an agony aunt, but I’m curious to know more about him. It’s reassuring to know other people have complications in their love lives too.

“I don’t know enough to give you my opinion, but feel free to unload, if you want to.”

He leans forward, his large hands resting on his denim clad knees and sighs. He has very nice hands with neatly shaped nails, no ragged cuticles or bitten nails. There’s a smattering of reddish hairs on the back. I always notice a man’s hands. Frank had very smooth, elegant hands with long, slim fingers. Jamie’s are much broader than Frank’s, which fits with his whole Viking throwback vibe. I force myself away from his hands and focus on what he's telling me.

“Ye see, ye get tae an age where all yer friends are in couples and having bairns. And ye feel that’s what ye should do, have a proper ‘relationship’.”

I inhale sharply at the way he says the word, so similar to my own thoughts. He glances at me, and continues.

“Ah, ye ken what I mean. And sae ye go along wi’ it when ye friends introduce ye tae a lass. And ye date… and it’s nice, but there’s always that feeling that they want something more, that they want the whole ‘relationship’ thing. They want more than ye can give. And that leads tae disappointment and arguments. They push, trying tae force ye to commit.”

He sits back and looks at me. “Mebbe it’s…och, i dinna ken. Jes’ ignore me. I’m a stupid dolt.”

“No, I don’t mind at all. Honestly.”

“I mean, Laoghaire is a nice enough lass, but it seems the more she pushes, the more I back away. It makes her more suspicious. If I dinna want her, then she reckons I must be after another. What do ye think?”

Do I tell him about her answering his phone? I mean, it seems like he’s coming to a conclusion all by himself. I decide not to volunteer any more information. And I know I said I wouldn’t give an opinion, but I just can’t help it. This is all too familiar to me.

“It is difficult but, ask yourself, is this fair to Laoghaire, or fair to you? Will this keep happening? I mean, I don’t know her, but will she be satisfied with what you are prepared to give? I think you already know your answer. And I think you know what you must do.”

He sighs again. “Aye, I do. But it’s no’ a pleasant thing, is it?”

I shake my head. The image of Frank’s devastation is still fresh in my mind. “It never is.”

The bench is now in shade, and it’s cooled down a lot. I shiver and wrap my cardigan tightly around me. Time to head home, I think.

“Aye, ye’re right. Time tae go.”

I’m not sure if he’s talking about the evening chill, or what he needs to do about the whole Laoghaire situation.

We both stand up at the same time. He extends his hand, and I take it in mine, which is more than a bit grubby and sticky, with the odd bit of tissue still stuck to it.

“Thank ye for listening, Claire, and fer yer opinion. It’s been a big help tae me. I dinna ken what it is but I feel I can talk tae ye. And I promise, next time, it’s yer turn. Ye can vent like ye want tae me and I’ll do the listening.”

“Will there be a next time?”

He smiles. “Oh aye, I’m sure there will be.”